Amidst the hype and media speculation on the recent ‘Arab Spring’, which is still in full ‘swing’ in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, is an underlying theme of the support and promotion for democracy in the West and what the most effective way to pursue it is – in a sense, less focus on the democratic ideals, and more on the process and aftermath of democratization. Such uprisings to bring down autocratic leaders or force democratic change and concession are not unusual. A recent political history of sub-Saharan Africa provides a glimpse of the political turmoil that grips a large proportion of the developing world- Kenya, Ivory Coast and Guinea to just name a few. The ‘Arab Spring’ is unique in that it is set of revolutions and large scale political protest within space of a few months, across a number of countries all in the same geographical area.
Taken simply as phenomena of political unrest and revolution, the Arab Spring is not particularly unusual. Therefore, what can be learned from previous situations? Two interrelated issues that sub-Saharan instances above can be noted for: 1)the nature and commitment of support Western nations give new democratic states and 2) the issue of reoccurrence and preventing future instability.
A major setback to the democratic development and economic growth of the world’s developing countries is the occurrence of civil conflict, unrest and instability. Such characteristics cause a huge amount of damage to infrastructure; often destroy inter-ethnic/faith relations and scares off foreign direct investment from states, widely considered an essential part of a progressive economic development strategy. Research has shown that such a permanent state of internal instability often occurs following ‘democratization’ of a state previously run by an autocratic dictator. Paul Collier, a leading researcher into the connection between civil conflict and development, has shown that the majority of previously autocratic states that have embraced democracy actually fall back into revolution, coup d’état or civil war. The reason is a lack of long term support for the various institutions that support democracy. Holding elections doesn’t constitute workable democracy. It is a web of rights, freedoms, laws (and, crucially, their enforcement) and electoral process that constitute a fully functioning democracy.
If electoral process is a solitary feature of a ‘democratic landscape’, then what is to stop the ruler from attempting retaining power illegitimately? This situation is all too common in developing countries, with the subsequent political situation being characterised by outrage of those who lost out, often leading to political instability. This may sound like an obvious point, but all too often democratic transition and the early years of a young democracy are all too often taken as a full gone conclusion. A fickle and easily distracted political cycle, unfortunately, is not conducive to insistence on full democratization with additional international support to complement and sustain these aims, but extra effort must be made sop as not to repeat mistakes.
Western states are often vocal in their support of revolutionary democratic movements, arguing that the population of nations have a right to determine their government and to live in free and fair society. However, economic and political support is usually concentrated around the period immediately before and after the ‘democratization’. It is clear, however, that issues of instability occur further along the line that this. Therefore, a concerted effort needs to be made to ensure prolonged support for young democracies, long after revolution or civil war.
Take these experiences into the context of the current Arab Spring and a number key points of how to progress become clear. Firstly, it is right to support the will majority to push through democratic reform. Secondly, this ‘transition’ must be full and without compromise in order to allow the mutually reinforcing mechanisms of democracy to operate. At the moment, there are contrasting situations highlighting this point across the ‘Arab Spring’. For example, while Egypt are drawing up a new constitution and awaiting free and fair election, where as in Moroccans have been offered an ‘expansion of liberties’. In order for the Arab Spring states not to fall into a future of perpetual chaos, democratic reform needs to be complete. Third, there needs to be whole hearted supported from the International Community in the medium and long term. This applies particularly to states such as Libya, where the country is currently in the midst of civil war that is destroying.
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